Smokescreens & Sebelius
On October 7, 2013 Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius was the guest on the Daily Show. Given that Jon Stewart is often regarded as a liberal mouthpiece, most folks probably expected that this would be a mutual admiration sort of interview. However, things certainly turned out rather differently as Stewart did what “real” journalists rarely do: he raised an important concern and refused to allow the person to shift the issue.
The question raised was one that certainly should be answered, namely the question of why large businesses were granted a delay in their implementation of Obamacare while individuals did not receive the same delay. While there should certainly be a fair and rational answer to this question, Sebelius went into verbal acrobatics to avoid answering it. This tactic is known as the smokescreen/red herring in philosophy:
A Red Herring is a fallacy in which an irrelevant topic is presented in order to divert attention from the original issue. The basic idea is to “win” an argument by leading attention away from the argument and to another topic. A common variation on this is the smokescreen: it functions like a red herring, but the attempt at diversion involves piling on complexities on the original issue until it is lost in the verbal smoke. This sort of “reasoning” has the following form:
1. Topic A is under discussion.
2. Topic B is introduced under the guise of being relevant to topic A (when topic B is actually not relevant to topic A).
3. Topic A is abandoned.
This sort of “reasoning” is fallacious because merely changing the topic of discussion hardly counts as an argument against a claim.
In the case of Sebelius, her attempts to switch to other issues and to pile on other matters did not answer Stewart’s reasonable question. In general, people use this tactic in response to a question when they either 1) have no answer to the question or 2) have a problematic or bad answer to the question. In the case of Sebelius, I would suspect that the second option holds: she almost certainly has an answer, but it almost certainly is not a good one.
Stewart seems to have drawn this sort of conclusion regarding Sebelius’ maneuvering:
“I still don’t understand why individuals have to sign up and businesses don’t, because if the businesses — if she’s saying, ‘well, they get a delay because that doesn’t matter anyway because they already give health care,’ then you think to yourself, ‘fuck it, then why do they have to sign up at all. And then I think to myself, ‘well, maybe she’s just lying to me.’”
In terms of why this question matters, one obvious point of concern is the matter of fairness. If large businesses get a year delay, then fairness would seem to require that the same courtesy be extended to individuals.
It might be countered that there is a relevant difference between large businesses and individuals that warrants the difference in treatment. If so, Sebelius should have simply presented this difference or differences and that would have quickly settled the matter. For example, it might be the case that a large business would need more time to implement the change on such a large scale, while an individual just has to implement it for herself. But, Sebelius provided no such relevant difference and spent her time trying throw out red herrings and blow smoke. This suggests that she was either ignorant of a relevant difference or was aware that the difference did not actually justify the difference in treatment. That is, there is no legitimate relevant difference. Given her position, the explanation based on her ignorance seems unlikely, so the reasonable conclusion is that she knew the answer, but believes that it would make things look worse than engaging in evasion. Of course, it is also possible that such evasion are just a matter of how politicians operate—like the famous scorpion being carried across the river, they cannot deviate from their nature. In any case, Sebelius’ behavior creates the impression that something is wrong here and creating this impression is, I am sure, not what she intended in her interview.
Interestingly, while this difference between businesses and individuals is a legitimate point of criticism, the Republicans seem to have little interest in engaging Obamacare in depth on points where it actually generates legitimate concerns. While the Republicans have noted that they want to defund or delay Obamacare, they seem to be unable to avoid hyperbole and other excesses of defective rhetoric. I suspect that this occurs for a variety of reasons. One possibility is that they are also like that scorpion: they simply cannot bring themselves to engage the matter of Obamacare in a rational way—instead, they have to sting away with crazy rhetoric and a government shutdown. Another possibility is that they believe that engaging in the actual issues will be bad for them in some manner. A third possibility, which is more specific than the second, is that they believe that their target audience is best played to by such rhetoric and behavior and that they would be ill served politically by engaging on actual issues in a rational manner. As a final possibility, they might not actually care about Obamacare as such—rather, they are simply out to oppose Obama and Obamacare happens to be the point of contention. To use an analogy, they are like Meletus in the Apology—they are not concerned with what they claim to be concerned about, they are just out to get their man.